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Common-sense realism (Naïve realism)

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The expression naïve realism indicates a set of philosophical conceptions of perception (and by extension a set of realistic metaphysical conceptions), sometimes also called common-sense realism, direct realism , or natural realism , which strongly re-evaluate (in different ways ) the concept of common sense.

Naïve realism (Naïve realism argues we perceive the world directly)


The conception, described for example by Henri Bergson in his “Matter and Memory“, maintains that human perception is able to put the mind in a non-fallacious cognitive relationship with the world. All objects are composed of matter, occupy space, have properties such as size, shape, consistency, smell and color. These properties are usually perceived correctly. So, according to the theory, when we look and touch things, we see and feel these objects directly, and we perceive them as they are. Objects continue to obey the laws of physics and maintain the properties that distinguish them, regardless of our perception.

Generally we tend to oppose this form of realism to reductionist forms of scientific realism, which instead place a sharp fracture between the subjective phenomenological aspects of perception, typical of the observer, and the intrinsic characteristics of perceived objects (see for example the Galilean distinction between primary and secondary qualities), the true reality underlying appearance. For example, objects are not colored in themselves , but because they reflect certain wavelengths based on their physical properties. On the other hand, color is only a subjective quality. The naïve realist, on the other hand, claims that objects have ‘really’ the color that we perceive. A scientific realist is, for example, John Locke, who claimed that the world has only primary qualities received in a scientific description made by the corpuscular theory, while the other properties are completely subjective, based on their existence, on the fact that someone observes the object that has those characteristics.

Criticism and counter-criticism

Naïve realism has often been criticized by the fact that different individuals may have conflicting perceptions of the same reality (as claimed by Bertrand Russell in his The Problems of Philosophy). For example, an apple may appear red during the day, but when it falls in the evening it takes on various shades of gray. Some scholars (such as Myles Burnyeat ) have argued that, in reality, the problem of conflicting perceptions does not exist. According to these authors, arguing that something can not really possess a property because it appears different in various circumstances, from different perspectives and under different conditions, is equivalent to saying that an object cannot really have properties until you show it always has them. As a result, we should conclude that a wooden stick is actually upright under all conditions and in every period. Clearly, according to Burnyeat and other critics of scientific realism, this is false: anyone would perceive the stick as if it were crooked, if it were partly submerged in water (due to the refraction ), but no one would think this happens because the stick it is not really straight. Bertrand Russell affirmed the inconsistency of naïve realism by supporting the following reasoning:

  • naïve realism refers to physics ;
  • physics, if true, shows that naïve realism is false;
  • naïve realism, if it is true, is therefore false;
  • naïve realism is therefore false.

This sort of argument has been thoroughly criticized by Austin in his book Sense and Sensibilia. One of the greatest contemporary philosophers, Hilary Putnam , has recently adopted a refined form of direct realism.

The recovery of natural realism

In contemporary philosophy there is a line of research that has given rise to a re-evaluation of natural realism, in an anti-Cartesian function. According to Hilary Putnam, are attributable to this trend, in addition to himself (according to rather different lines and contexts):

  • Thomas Reid
  • William James
  • Husserl
  • Wittgenstein
  • JLAustin

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